This month's AAMMS post was submitted as a comment from a reader. Since I'm not doing this alone -- this column is about collective wisdom -- I'm going to be featuring readers' stories from time to time.
FYI: If you email me, I'll feature you only if you give your express permission. If you submit your story as a comment, therefore with implicit original intent to share, then you may find it spotlighted here. Because things get buried too easily in comment threads, right?
A note on upcoming posts: We'll have one on suicide stats (what's real? what's misinformation?) soon, I hope. Currently also gathering thoughts on how to choose a therapist.
The story below is from "J," who originally submitted it as a reply on the inaugural post, to follow up on her comment titled "war traumas & boundaries."
J, thank you.
My Self Preservation, or How I Got to These Thirties
1 - Care for self and others. Sounds cheesy, but it helps. My care for my little sister kept me from early suicide attempts (she would never understand my suicide, I reasoned.) Sympathy and empathy for others can actually make you feel sympathetic towards yourself, as well, which can keep you around longer. And if you have sympathy only for yourself, that's great too. Use that sympathy to cut yourself some slack. Be gentle on yourself -- life is hard enough, don't be your own worst enemy by taking on to a greater degree the negative messages which others have imprinted upon you.
2 - I witnessed/grieved the severe ripple effects of suicide, when my best friend committed suicide, when I was 16. I also reckoned that she would have been fine, probably, if she could have made it to an age where she could live on her own away from her abusive family -- she just couldn't see the horizon line from the depression she was in. I vowed never to decide, with such finitude, anything about my own life. I vowed to be patient even in dark times. Never to make rash and irreversible decisions based on a mood, even a mood lasting for months. There are other ways of coping, to see one's self through.
3 - During a difficult depression in my teens, I began journaling profusely, writing for emotional release (and very rarely re-reading, but always keeping my journals). I started out with composition notebooks and in time moved into Moleskine journals, and by now I have hundreds of these journals tucked into boxes, and they've been FAR cheaper than any psychologist (and I can take one anywhere!)
4 - I kept up the creative expression that I'd enjoyed since childhood, especially creative writing and visual art -- they'd always been escapes/outlets but they became very essential to me as grew older (and still are), especially if I kept the work to myself as long as I needed to (i.e., I did it just for my own enjoyment).
5 - After I made it to an age where i could legally live on my own, at age 18, I got some scholarships and sent myself AWAY to college (over 3,000 miles away, far from both of my biological parents).
6 - I picked a liberal arts college where GPAs didn't exist, where majors were not mandatory, where non-hierarchical thinking is encouraged, which made my schooling as structured as I needed it to be. (Also it is a state college so I could better afford it, rather than similar private schools.) I wasn't concerned about making money, just about finding out what I really wanted to do with my life. I wanted to "follow my bliss," and had to figure out what that meant. I found many answers -- and those answers propel me still.
7 - I worked my way through college, got scholarships here and there, and made my own decisions (including leave-of-absence traveling, majors, courses, apartments). I gained confidence that I would make it fine on my own, which always felt great even when I felt depressed. At least I could care for myself -- this is a HUGE boost for self-esteem, after a childhood of dependency on abusive/neglectful parents.
8 - I developed friendships with people I could connect with deeply. Often this happened at work, but sometimes at school or another context. Conversations are important to my life ... and people I could really talk with usually became close friends. In time these relationships felt like family (but without all the abuse! ha!). Even if I only made one new friend a year, it was satisfying. I still know everyone I ever got to know really well, and I have friends all over the US and even in other countries. Quality is more important than quantity. And as Euripides says, "One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives."
9 - I lived cheaply during and after college, and even now in grad school, so that I could survive without family support (or a spouse). As a woman, I lived on my own for almost 10 years and actually enjoyed it a LOT -- very productive, fulfilling years during which I began publishing my writing, exhibiting my art, working on films, and doing the research that would eventually lead me back towards school.
10 - During this creative period, I also held non-academic jobs for seven years, before returning to school for a MA/Ph.D program. So I know I can make it 'outside' the institution, too -- which is great because sometimes graduate school challenges you to rethink what you should be doing here, or that you want to be part of the academic world at all. (Grad students also have very high rates of depression and suicidal ideation, so keeping it all in perspective continues to be a must!)
11 - My physical self care includes eating well (yummy protein, fruit, and veggies), getting exercise outside (preferably hikes and walks), and epsom salt baths for de-stressing. Aromatherapy -- through tealight candle burners warming up essential oils -- is also great for grief, anger, anxiety, sleeplessness, etc. Lavender essential oil, in particular, has antidepressant, anti-anxiety, and sedative properties and it can be added to bath water or dabbed on wrists. (Highly recommended!)
12 - I celebrate my life everyday -- the friends I love, the food I eat, the texture of a sweater, the color of the sky, the song in my iTunes, the photo I just took. If you are present in your life you will find things to appreciate. And you will have more positive feelings, in general, about your life and yourself, as you cultivate mindfulness about the things you appreciate. (Sometimes I even make a list of things that make me happy, when I am down. It works to remind you what you like about life.)
13 - As in my teens, I still take care of my dark emotions these days (journaling, talking with a friend, crying, listening to appropriate music, writing a letter I never actually send, etc) so that these dark emotions don't gang up on me. In time, my very dark spells, where I got super depressed about my life, family, etc., happened less and less often. But I had to have them, I am guessing, for me to process it all, to heal, to create new possibilities in my life.
14 - Use humor!!!! If your parents drive you crazy, make fun of the absurdity of the situation (even in your own head) or tell stories to a trusted friend. My crazy-dad stories have come back to me through my friends, and we still get a kick out of even the most effed-up stuff my dad used to do. At the time, it really affected my life negatively, hence I vented by telling these stories. And so sometimes the most absurd and painful stuff can become fodder for some dark therapeutic humor. (Here's where a good friend comes in handy ... or the ever-trusted journal.)
15 - Keep relationships only with people that you want in your life, and keep distance from everyone else. Even if you can't entirely sever the tie with a family member, you can decide when to end a phone call, for example, if someone in your family is verbally abusive to you. Set good boundaries so that family and other people know that they can't verbally, mentally, or emotionally abuse you. Not talking with someone for a long time after a damaging situation, for example, usually sends a strong message that you keep good boundaries, or not talking again unless a certain thing happens first (apology, etc.). Set the terms for your own life.
I hope that a few of these recommendations might benefit some readers. With the things I went through in my family, I could have spent the rest of my life really debilitated, and it would have been justified. But once I grew up, got out of the house, got away, got to have my own life -- it was MY TURN to take care of myself. And I have been doing it, for 16 years, with increasing skill and comfort and joy.
* * *
Comments, questions, or stories can be posted below -- or sent privately to Sam at aamms[at]hyphenmagazine[dot]com.